Social Competencies in Young Children

Definitions of Socio-emotional skills and social competency are seen as being different to IQ or intelligence, however, it is important to consider that these skills do interact with intellect, and this should be given consideration when measuring outcomes and abilities to build and maintain relationships.  Socio-emotional competency is further defined as the skills which help children and adults to engage with particular tasks in a suitable manner, to recognise and manage emotions, and to be able to cope with and manage conflict in socially acceptable ways. 

Seven C’s of Social Competencies

The development of socio-emotional skills takes place when a child is very young, and during this timeframe positive relationships majorly impact on how children grow into productive and independent adults. Such skills ensure that our children develop the required tools and abilities to negotiate their environments. To be able to cope with life, transitions, changes in routine, uncertainties that come their way; coping with the daily toils of life as we know it.

Schmidt (2019) refers to the Seven C’s of social competency, which include communication, community building, coping confidence, conflict resolution, control and curiosity. We see connections here to emotional development theory, self-regulation, confidence and self-awareness; all of these attributes are skills we need to build relationships, retain trust and demonstrate empathy. Goleman (2005) highlights the importance of emotional intelligence, if a child is to be able to successfully engage with their emotions, regulate and react to situations appropriately. Resilience to bounce back from challenges which are not the norm is something all children need to learn if they are to become the adults of the future. A child who understands their own emotions will be able to identify needs and support others.

Achieving Social Competencies  

As with adults, children during any one-day will encounter numerous situations involving groups, peers, or one to one interaction. The difference is that the child may not yet have gained sufficient experience to demonstrate social competencies in these situations, and definitely not in every given social interaction; therefore, importantly we need to remember that a child will not gain these skills independently. Social competence is not an innate quality, one that naturally evolves; but rather it is one, which as adults we need to nurture and guide if a child is to attain these skills. The child won’t suddenly at a particular age become socially competent if they have not been successfully guided to deal with social situations. Children need guidance, to observe others, social modelling, it is our role as the adult to nurture and support them as they navigate different situations (Vygotsky 1976; Bandura, 1971). Attachment also plays a valuable role in attaining social competence. Children who thrive in secure environments, in trusting relationships, draw on the social cues of those they bond with; transferring what they see into their own interactions.

Webster-Stratton and Reid (2004) highlight the need for social competence from a young age, if a child is to mature into a successful adult, claiming limitations in ones ability to engage socially impairs academic achievement as early as preschool; with children lacking the necessary skills to discuss, share views and relate to others.

Responsibilities for Developing Social Skills

Responsibility is not really the most suitable term when we consider who helps and guides children in their development, but unfortunately in some instances it does become a them and us situation, particularly if things don’t seem to be going to plan.   

Ultimately the first people to hold responsibility to develop social competencies and emotional skills are the Parents as they provide the first real interactions that a child engages with. This does however go further than personal interactions, it includes providing resources, suitable activities and opportunities to promote social skills and explore new and varying situations. As a Parent you need to participate, act as a role model, bear in mind that our social cues are how children learn; so constantly demonstrating empathy and awareness to others is important. Remember your child is watching, taking on board your responses.

Bronfenbrenner (1979) raised the awareness that from a young age children engage with a social circle, family, friends of family, and the local community; and that social circle impacts on the child’s overall development, therefore Parents and the wider circle in those early days are vital to the social interactions, and competencies of children.  

After the child moves out of the home environment into the crèche or preschool, the responsibility continues, but becomes a shared one; with the Early Years Practitioner and peers becoming important in promoting and enhancing these skills.  They do however, not take over the role, and therefore a positive partnership with parents is vital as consistency is key; cues and responses to the child’s interactions need to be consistent.  Mixed messages will undo all the good that has been done to date (Bruce, 2011).

Other Contributory Factors

Further factors, which contribute to competent development of social skills, include resources and environments. Amongst these are peers, as children meet and engage with each other daily. Importantly how they respond to each other predetermines social and emotional behaviours, and how the adult responds in these situations also sends messages; so ensuring peer interactions are positive, empathy is key, a child who can empathise is aware of their own emotions, can regulate and engage with difficult situations.

Environments provide resources and opportunities to promote positive social interactions, and emotional awareness.  Key concepts embedded in the pedagogical stance of the setting should include building positive relationships, promoting positive interactions with others as this is vital to learning (Zakrzewski, 2014).  Children should be encouraged to share, respect others, listen to their views and ideas, and work together as part of small teams, collaborating with peers and adults in respectful  ways (Zakrzewski, 2014).

The Theoretical Stance

Vygotsky’s theory ZPD tells us how children learn new skills from the more able other, either peer or adult; demonstrating the value of group activities and shared experiences during play activities.  Thus we see the level of a child’s ability to interact, support and demonstrate social competency skills, empathy, peer guidance, awareness of body language and non verbal cues (Hughes and Dunn, 2007).   Supporting this McDevitt et al (2013) reiterate these values, and the importance of resources in early education for enhancing social competency in young children.

Key points to developing social competency
  • Be guided by the child’s interests
  • Ask questions to encourage interactions
  • Involve children in Role Play
  • Empathy – teach children empathy to help raise their awareness of how others feel.
  • Be aware that some children are more social than others, don’t force a child to engage before they are ready, a shy child might take a little while longer to willing participate
  • Modelling – Social skills and interaction is important, so be a good role model. Children learn and practice what they see (Bandura, 1971).

References:

Bandura, A. (1971) Social Learning Theory, Stanford University.

Bruce, T. (2011) Learning through Play: for babies, Toddlers and Young children, UK: Hodder Education.

Hughes, C., and Dunn, J. (2007) Children’s relationships with other children, in C. A Brownell and C.B. Kopp (eds) Socioemotional development in the toddler years: Transitions and transformations, Guilford Press.

Goleman, G. (2005) Emotional Intelligence; why it can matter more than IQ, USA: Random House USA Inc.

McDevitt, J., and Ormrod, J. (2016) Child Development and Education, UK: Pearson.

Schmidt, C. A. (2019) Developing Social Competency in Young Children, UK: Redleaf Press.

Webster-Stratton, C., and Reid, M. J. (2004) ‘Strengthening Social and Emotional Competence in Young children’, in The Foundation for early School Readiness and success: Incredible Years Classroom Social Skills and Problem Solving Curriculum in infants and young children 17(2):96-113.

Zakrzewski, V. (2014) ‘How Social-Emotional learning Transforms Classrooms’, in Greater Good in Education.

Published by Dr M

An Early Years Specialist in the areas of Education, Psychology, and Research, I am passionate about curriculum development and the benefits of IT in Early years for promoting creative thought, autonomy, and innovative teaching and learning. Throughout my career I have also been involved in raising awareness of the importance of outdoor play, the provision of training and development in Adult Education; improved Parental involvement, and also Psychological development and behavioural analysis particularly in children under 6yrs. As a Counsellor and Psychotherapist, I work with parents, schools, and preschools as consultant and mentor offering support and advice, training, and quality assurance with the aim of encouraging standardisation and recognition amongst the Early Years profession.

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